‘American Idol’ Video Timeline: Five Seasons In Five Minutes (Or 2,500 Words)

From Justin to Taylor, commentator Jim Cantiello relives each season in this unique words-and-video report.

And you thought the sixth season of “American Idol” was filled with hair-raising moments …

From the ear-pleasing highs to the glass-shattering “no!”s, this timeline by MTV News’ “American Idol” expert Jim Cantiello will tell you everything you need to know about the first five seasons: the lurid scandals, the shocking eliminations and the so-bad-they’re-brilliant, oh-no-they-didn’t performances.

Season One: 2002

WINNER: Kelly Clarkson

RUNNER-UP: Justin Guarini

HIGH NOTE (OF THE SEASON): Simon may have called Tamyra Gray’s “A House Is Not a Home” one of the best performances on TV ever, but I’m still partial to Kelly Clarkson’s offering on Big Band night. Her “Stuff Like That There” was sassy, flirty and oozed sex appeal without being over-the-top. (Haley Scarnato, take note!) Bonus points for making me finally understand a genre of music I thought only my grandparents liked. (Xtina, take note!) Christina Christian’s mesmerizing “Ain’t No Sunshine” is a close second.

LOW NOTE (OF THE SEASON): Between the Molly Ringwald dance moves and singing that would make Ashlee Simpson wince, “rocker” Nikki McKibbin’s “Always Something There to Remind Me” was a complete and utter disaster. The arrangement certainly didn’t help (nothing says “hard rock” like bad drum programming and an inexplicable “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”-style Vegas breakdown, right?) but the performance truly crossed the line in its final moments, when the single mom pandered for votes by pimping her son accepting a rose from her kid. Even Paula hated it.

HOT-MESS PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON: From the “I see London, I see France” mini skirt to the manic delivery, Ryan Starr’s “Frim Fram Sauce” had me clapping with catty glee. How she was able to stay so hilariously earnest while singing a song about wanting “chafafa on the side” blows my mind.

SEASON SHOCKER: Thanks to a lame Patti LaBelle song choice, über-talented Tamyra gets ousted before the shaky-at-best Nikki McKibbin. An emotional McKibbin is propelled into the top three, the studio audience boos, and in five seconds, “Idol” becomes the most unpredictable show on TV.

SEASON SCANDALS: Some cry foul when Christina Christian’s elimination falls on the same night she happens to be recuperating in a hospital bed due to “exhaustion.” (It’s even fishier considering her performance that week was solid.) For non-conspiracy theorists, the big scandal occurred in the semifinals when contestant Delano Cagnolati was disqualified for lying about his age. (The equally forgettable Ejay Day replaced him.)

CULTURAL IMPACT/LEGACY : More than just “the season with two hosts,” season one laid the low-budget foundation for what would later become the “American Idol” empire. Several seasons — and “Idol” winners — later, purists still point to Kelly Clarkson as the only true “Idol.” Her record sales suggest the same, although both Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry have had impressive-so-far post-“Idol” careers as well (sales-wise, anyway). Clarkson’s first single breaks a record previously held by The Beatles (!!!) and her first two albums go on to sell a bajillion copies. (Actually, it’s more like 12.5 million.) In the broadcast world, reality-show producers bark in unison, “GET ME A CRANKY BRITISH JUDGE!” (see “So You Think You Can Dance and/or Ice-Skate With the Stars AND Have Talent?!”), while an ill-conceived (and rushed) attempt at big-screen domination results in one of the worst movies of all time. Paula Abdul enjoys fame again — this time without the help of an animated cat. And lastly, America learns a new word: pitchy.

Season Two: 2003

WINNER: Ruben Studdard

RUNNER-UP: Clay Aiken

HIGH NOTE (OF THE SEASON): During “Hollywood Week” the big (voiced) girls Frenchie Davis and Kimberley Locke banded together for a diva-licious duet, “Band of Gold.” It was supposed to be a group number but the other female contestants were too chicken to share the stage with the two best singers in the batch. They were smart to steer clear.

LOW NOTE (OF THE SEASON): Deciding on the worst Carmen Rasmussen performance is like choosing between death by a swarm of bees or toothpick stabbing. I’ll go with the Wild Card performance, where Simon put the attractive-but-tone-deaf singer through to the top 12 even though he said her “Can’t Find the Moonlight” was awful. Typical!

HOT-MESS PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON: Marine Josh Gracin performed “Jive Talkin’ ” like he was trying to pick a fight with everyone in America at once. The handheld camera remained about four inches away from his face as he walked through the crowd, making “give it to me” hand gestures for a minute straight for no apparent reason. Did I mention that his facial expressions made him look like a dude in a porno? It was stunning in its wrongness.

SEASON SHOCKER: Aside from the ousted contestants (see “Season Scandals” below) and the terrifying Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire being a guest judge, the biggest shock had to be that the formerly annoying Ryan Seacrest was a lot more likeable without scripted banter and an unnecessary co-host at his side. Sorry, Brian Dunkleman!

SEASON SCANDALS: Pack a lunch — it’s gonna take awhile to weed through all this. First, before the semifinals began, front-runner Frenchie Davis was told to hit the road after it was uncovered that she had modeled topless for a skuzzy porn site. Although Frenchie says she was honest to executives about her past, the same cannot be said about Corey Clark. Nine hours after the Smoking Gun posted a mugshot of the alleged sister-beater, the blindsided producers ousted Corey from “Idol.” (The saga continued: see Season Four.) And lastly, Trenyce was humiliated when her especially unglamorous mugshot (for a 1999 felony theft charge) popped up on the Internet. Producers let her stay because of her honesty, but America ended up doing the show’s dirty work by voting her off.

CULTURAL IMPACT/LEGACY : By casting Ruben, Clay, Kimberley and Frenchie, “AI2″ broadened America’s definition of “pop star image.” Fans ate it up. However, by voting on voice over looks, the season ended up being fairly predictable, where the singer who deserved to go home each week did. The final Ruben/Clay showdown was a tight race (one that Seacrest called a “photo finish”) and although Studdard was the victor, Aiken ultimately wiped the floor with him in record sales.

Season Three: 2004

WINNER: Fantasia Barrino

RUNNER-UP: Diana DeGarmo

HIGH NOTE (OF THE SEASON): If you look up “Wow moment” in the “Idol” dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Fantasia singing her signature “Summertime.”

LOW NOTE (OF THE SEASON): Poor John Stevens. Unless it was standards night, there was no way in hell the crooner could succeed. But there’s no excuse for his listless Latin night offering, “Music of the Heart.” Simon said it best when he told the young singer, “You and Latin music go together like chocolate ice cream and an onion.” That actually sounds appetizing compared to this painful schlock-a-thon. This dude outlasted Jennifer Hudson??

HOT-MESS PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON: Camile Velasco was a walking disaster: The girl had such bad stage fright that every time she performed, it looked like she was one swallow away from projectile-vomiting all over the judges. Maybe meeting her idol Elton John would loosen her up? Nah. She turned “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” into a whiney cat-in-heat debacle. I break into cold sweats just thinking about it — while simultaneously wishing it was my ringtone.

SEASON SHOCKER: Was it the result of racism (Sir Elton’s theory), a random side-effect of an Illinois tornado (Al Roker’s theory) or just plain vote-splitting (common-sense theory)? Whatever the case, the bottom three of Barry Manilow week ended up being the best singers of the season: Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson and La Toya London, dubbed “The Three Divas” by Ryan Seacrest. (The future Oscar winner was the one to say goodbye that night.) Three weeks later, the two remaining divas landed at the bottom again, as the perennially pitchy Jasmine Trias sat pretty on the “safe” couch. Paula solemnly noted that “America got it wrong” before sobbing uncontrollably as La Toya sang her swan song.

SEASON SCANDALS: Midway through the competition, the increasingly loopy Paula Abdul begins showing up to “Idol” with her arm in a sling. The judge tells “Entertainment Tonight” that she almost lost her thumb in a freak manicure accident, but never fully explains why her entire arm had to be cradled. Two years later, in what might be the oddest celebrity cause ever, Abdul pressures California lawmakers to enforce nail-salon regulations. You can keep your African poverty, Bono. Abdul wants our cuticles protected, dammit!

CULTURAL IMPACT/LEGACY: Because of the gospel-influenced divas, season three is remembered as the year “Idol” went to church. (No wonder watching Fantasia’s post-win performance of “I Believe” was a religious experience!) Season three is also notorious for “discovering” William Hung, a naive Asian civil-engineering student who auditioned for the show and was catapulted to the limelight thanks to a severely off-key rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs.” His fame (and record contract) births a new breed of “Idol” celebrity: the freak show.

Season Four: 2005

WINNER: Carrie Underwood

RUNNER-UP: Bo Bice

HIGH-NOTE (OF THE SEASON): Rockers Bo Bice and Constantine Maroulis each had their moment in the sun. Bice’s a cappella “In a Dream” stopped everyone dead in their tracks, while Constantine’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was not the train wreck it should have been. Ironically, country star Carrie Underwood shone brightest when singing a rock song, Heart’s “Alone.”

LOW NOTE (OF THE SEASON): I’m tempted to pick Anthony Federov’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” only so I can mention Simon’s hilariously simple “hideous” assessment, but Mikalah Gordon’s “Love Will Lead You Back” is far too offensive to overlook. The hyperactive teen took Taylor Dayne’s lush ballad and sang it like a goose warning its gaggle of imminent danger: 92 seconds of ear torture.

HOT-MESS PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON: The theme was “70’s Dance Music” (or as everyone else in the world calls it, disco) and lucky for us, country femmebot Carrie Underwood was not wired to handle it. During her dazed, confused and downright petrified “MacArthur Park,” someone switched the Underwood-4000’s vocal mode to “4-year-old pageant queen” and her hairstyle to “40-year-old drag queen.” Yes!

SEASON SHOCKER: Judd Harris’ elimination was a jaw-dropper — not necessarily because we expected him to advance, but because of the manner in which he was eliminated. During the semifinals, Seacrest told the front row (Judd included) to sit pretty and relax. Then, after “safe”-ing each of the back row’s contestants, the host, without any warning, turns back to the couch and announces, “Judd, YOU are OUT.” If there’s such a thing as karma, Seacrest is in for one hell of a firing some day.

SEASON SCANDALS: Days before the top 12 were set to hit the stage, front-runner Mario Vazquez dropped out of the show for personal reasons. (A lawsuit filed against Vazquez in 2007 claims he pulled a George Michael on a crew member. Whoa!) Later in the season, “Idol” is forced to hold a re-vote after a production error displays incorrect phone numbers on a performance show. Oops! The “Idol” gods saved the best scandal for last, however. Season-two degenerate Corey Clark re-emerged with an inflammatory book to sell. In it, he claimed that the real reason he was DQ’d from the show back in ’03 was because he was having an illicit affair with Abdul. On a sensational primetime news special (called — wait for it — “Fallen Idol”) the former contestant spoke — and sang — about his “relationship” in graphic detail. (I’m still trying to track down an MP3 of the song “Paulatics,” by the way.) Abdul denies it, “Idol” hires a private investigative team, and wouldn’t you know it? They conclude that Paula was straight-up telling the truth.

CULTURAL IMPACT/LEGACY : The “rockers” put a much-needed new spin on the “Idol” formula, juicing up the competition with a fresh, unexpected energy. (There’s only so many times you can hear an amateur destroy “My Cherie Amour,” right?) Also, in order to prevent season three’s crazy gender gap, the show institutes the six boys/ six girls top-12 quota we all know and loathe. Plus, producers get even looser with their moral code. The show barely bats an eyelash when domestic charges against Scott Savol and past drug arrests for finalist Bo become public. (Audiences don’t seem to care, either.) And finally, the first country “Idol” is crowned and goes on to become one of the biggest names in the genre, while Bo the Rocker’s career stalls.

Season Five: 2006

WINNER: Taylor Hicks

RUNNER-UP: Katharine McPhee

HIGH NOTE (OF THE SEASON): Paris Bennett’s “Take Five” (from her first audition) still gives me goose bumps with every single note. It’s so genius that Paula’s sheep-like “Ya-a-a-a-a-a” reaction is poetry compared to the joyful-but-bizarre noises I made when I first heard Bennett. It’s really unfortunate that during her “Idol” run Princess P never topped this flawless first impression.

LOW NOTE (OF THE SEASON): Ace Young squeezed Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” out of his voice box and then exposed his chest to reveal a scar … while he sang a lyric about a scar. Seriously, dude? P.S.: It looked like special-effects makeup, if you ask me.

HOT-MESS PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON: In the season’s semifinal kickoff, Manilooney (and just plain looney) Bobby Bennett proved that what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas, and fans of all things campy hit the jackpot. Between the wide-eyed mugging, the “Liza with a Z” jazz hands and the song dedication to his dead “gram,” Bennett’s performance was deranged enough for you to think that John Waters cast this round of “Idol.”

SEASON SHOCKER: The two-hour season finale was so jam-packed with surprise guests, weeping random audience members and cheesetastic group numbers that for once “Idol” aired a results show that wasn’t 99 percent boring filler — and that might be the biggest “Idol” shocker ever.

SEASON SCANDALS: Any plus-sized divas out there? Take note: Gay men will probably make up most of your fanbase, so don’t pull a Mandisa. The singer cited “Pray the Gay Away” preacher Beth Moore as a personal hero, and then busted out some spoken word at the top of a song that came off as being … questionable. “Your addiction, lifestyle and situation may be big, but God is bigger!” Regardless of ’Disa’s clarification attempt — “When I said ’lifestyle’ I was talking about my food addiction” — the harm was already done and her fans fled. A week later, she went bye-bye.

CULTURAL IMPACT/LEGACY : Considering 9 out of the 12 finalists scored record deals, it goes to show you that you don’t have to win “American Idol” to have a career — and considering the fizzling sales of Katharine and Taylor’s records, it goes to show you that winning “American Idol” doesn’t guarantee a career.

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